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Felisa Wolfe-Simon is an American microbial geobiologist and biogeochemist. In 2010, Wolfe-Simon led a team that discovered GFAJ-1, an extremophile bacterium that they claimed was capable of substituting arsenic for a small percentage of its phosphorus to sustain its growth, thus advancing the remarkable possibility of non-RNA/DNA-based genetics.[1] However, these conclusions were immediately debated and critiqued in correspondence to the original journal of publication,[2] and have since come to be widely disbelieved.[3] In 2012, two reports refuting the most significant aspects of the original results were published in the same journal in which the original findings had been previously published.[4][5]

Education and careerEdit

Wolfe-Simon did her undergraduate studies at Oberlin College and completed a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and Chemistry and a Bachelor of Music in Oboe Performance and Ethnomusicology at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.[6] She received her Doctor of Philosophy in oceanography from the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University in 2006 with a dissertation titled The Role and Evolution of Superoxide Dismutases in Algae.[7] Later Wolfe-Simon was a NASA research fellow in residence at the US Geological Survey and a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. She is currently at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.[8]


Wolfe-Simon's research focuses on evolutionary microbiology and exotic metabolic pathways. At a conference in 2008 and subsequent 2009 paper, Wolfe-Simon, Paul Davies and Ariel Anbar proposed that arsenate (Template:Chem) could serve as a substitute for phosphate (Template:Chem) in various forms of biochemistry.[9][10] According to Paul Davies, Wolfe-Simon was the one who had the "critical insight" that arsenic might be able to substitute for phosphorus.[11] As late as March 2010, she had been hinting of some shadow biosphere results to the press.[12][13]

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Wolfe-Simon processing mud at Mono Lake, 2010

Wolfe-Simon then led a search for such an organism by targeting the naturally occurring arsenic-rich Mono Lake, California. This search led to the discovery of the bacterium GFAJ-1, which her team claimed in a Science on-line article in December 2010 was able to incorporate arsenate as a substitute for a small percentage of the typical phosphate in its DNA and other essential biomolecules.[1] If correct, this would be the only known organism to be capable of replacing phosphorus in its DNA and other vital biochemical functions.[14][15][16] The Science publication and an hour-long December 2, 2010 NASA news conference were publicized and led to "wild speculations on the Web about extraterrestrial life".[17] Wolfe-Simon was the only one of the paper's authors at that news conference.[18] The news conference was promptly met with criticism by scientists and journalists.[19] In the following month, Wolfe-Simon (and her co-authors and NASA) responded to criticisms through an online FAQ and an exclusive interview with a Science reporter, but also announced they would not respond further outside scientific peer-review.[20][21] Wolfe-Simon left USGS in May 2011 to pursue her research elsewhere.[22] Wolfe-Simon maintains she did not leave voluntarily, but was "effectively evicted" from the USGS group.[23]

The Science article "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus" appeared in the June 3, 2011 print version of Science;[1] it had remained on the "Publication ahead of print" ScienceXpress page for six months after acceptance for publication.

However, researchers from the University of British Columbia and Princeton University performed studies in which they used a variety of different techniques to investigate the presence of arsenic in the DNA of GFAJ-1 and published their results in early 2012. The group found no detectable arsenic in the DNA of the bacterium. In addition they found that the strain did not grow in the presence of arsenate, further supporting the absence of the element and its lack of participation in essential biological processes.[24][25]

Following the publication of the articles challenging the conclusions of the original Science article first describing GFAJ-1 the website Retraction Watch argued that the original article should be retracted because of misrepresentation of critical data.[26][27] As of October 2014, no retraction had been announced.[28]


In 2006 Wolfe-Simon was awarded a National Science Foundation Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellowship[29] to support work done at Harvard University and Arizona State University. In 2010, she received a Kavli Fellowship from the United States National Academy of Sciences.


  • F. Wolfe, K. Kroeger and I. Valiela (1999). Increased lability of estuarine dissolved organic nitrogen from urbanized watersheds. Biological Bulletin. 197:290-292.
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  • F. Wolfe-Simon (2006). The Role and Evolution of Superoxide Dismutases in Algae. Ph.D. Thesis. Rutgers Graduate Program in Oceanography.
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  • J.B. Glass, F. Wolfe-Simon, and A.D. Anbar (2009). Coevolution of marine metal availability and nitrogen assimilation in cyanobacteria and algae. Geobiology. 7: 100-123.
  • F. Wolfe-Simon, P.C.W. Davies and A.D. Anbar (2009). Did nature also choose Arsenic? International Journal of Astrobiology. 8: 69-74.
  • R.S. Oremland, C.W. Saltikov, F. Wolfe-Simon, and J.F. Stolz (2009). Arsenic in the evolution of Earth and extraterrestrial ecosystems. Geomicrobiology Journal. 26: 522 - 536.
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See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Template:Cite journal
  2. Template:Cite journal
  3. Drahl, C. The Arsenic-Based-Life Aftermath. Researchers challenge a sensational claim, while others revisit arsenic biochemistry, Chem Eng News 90(5), 42-47, January 30, 2012.; accessed 13 October 2012
  4. Template:Cite journal
  5. Template:Cite journal
  6. "Wolfe-Simon CV". [dead link]
  7. Template:Cite thesis
  8. "Studies refute report of arsenic-loving bacteria". Fox News. 
  9. Template:Cite journal
  10. Early life could have relied on 'arsenic DNA' 26 April 2008, Michael Reilly, New Scientist
  11. "Discovery of new life put down to strong self-belief". December 3, 2010. 
  12. "The Times - UK News, World News and Opinion". 
  13. NASA – Astrobiology Magazine: "Searching for Alien Life, on Earth" October 2009
  14. Template:Cite news
  15. Thriving on Arsenic Henry Bortman, Astrobiology Magazine, 2010-12-02
  16. Response to Questions Concerning the Science Article December 16, 2010
  17. "Exclusive Interview: Discoverer of Arsenic Bacteria, in the Eye of the Storm". 
  18. NASA media advisory : M10-167 Nov. 29, 2010
  19. Pennisi, Elizabeth. "Exclusive Interview: Discoverer of Arsenic Bacteria, in the Eye of the Storm". Science. Retrieved 21 December 2010.  Template:Cite news
  20. Backing off an arsenic-eating claim By Faye Flam, Dec. 17, 2010
  21. Arsenic about face: NASA's arsenic debacle tells us a lot about what's wrong about the relationship between science, peer review and the media in the 21st century by Martin Robbins, 2010-12-08
  22. Template:Cite journal
  23. "Scientist in a Strange Land". Popular Science. 
  24. Template:Cite news
  25. Template:Cite journal
  26. Sanders, David. "Despite refutation, Science arsenic life paper deserves retraction, scientist argues". Retraction Watch. 
  27. World Archipelago. "Blog". 
  28. Setting the Record Straight
  29.[dead link]

External linksEdit

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